Rick Morgan, Rick Morgan Consulting
About this article: Social networking reflects a societal transformation that is taking place and it is important for your agency to keep up with it. Learn how other agencies are benefiting from social networking and how you can create and extend trusted relationships with prospects and clients using these tools, while building your agency’s online brand.
The growing popularity of social networking has attracted the attention of agencies, brokers, and carriers that believe these platforms open up new business opportunities. They are discovering its value as an essential tool for communication, customer engagement, lead generation, immediate customer contact, customer service, customer interaction and relationship building.
There are a couple of key factors driving this trend. First, there has been a rapid rise in the popularity of social networking. Insurance customers continue to migrate online and adopt social networking and growing numbers of customers turn to the Web to research and buy insurance.
Secondly, there is now a “Main Street” acceptance of social networking as a powerful persuasive tool.
Regardless of political affiliation, one only needs to study the role that social networking played in the Obama campaign to understand the power of social networking and influence it is having on our society.
Social networking is not new – only the tools are
For many, social networking seems complicated, mysterious, intimidating and even a bit scary. While the social web is a “hot” topic it is not new. Many of the social activities on the social networks are no different than the real life activities we have engaged in most of our lives. If you have ever asked or given advice, given or received a recommendation, shared an experience, collaborated on a project, or interacted with a group you have participated in social networking.
So, what is social networking? Think of it as a virtual community where people with common interests can gather and connect, to share stories, ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Social networking is similar to a cocktail reception without constraints of time or space.
“Soon, being the loudest and broadest messenger in a medium consumers don't trust simply won't count as much as being the most authentic, available, and accessible brand in the media consumers do.” - Experience: The Blog by Augie Ray
The business of being an insurance agent or broker relies on building trusted relationships. The era of mass marketing was a threatening time for insurance agents. The impersonal era of “big” everything – mass mailings, cold calling and blast email – all had the effect of disenfranchising the independent agent and broker. They had a hard time standing out, differentiating themselves and competing in a marketing world filled with clutter.
There has been a transformation and societal shift. Consumers have had it with the impersonal “push” marketing of yesterday. Spam filters, do-not-call lists, DVRs, and the like give the public the power to say, “I have had enough.”
Social networking is fostering fundamental changes in the way people communicate, gather information, form opinions, and build relationships. It is all about listening, building community, engaging in a conversation, sharing an experience, being transparent, being engaging and interesting and adding value. In short, social networking is all about building and strengthening relationships.
This is encouraging news for independent agents and brokers. The meteoric rise of tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are all telling us that customers want to do business with people whom they feel like they know and trust. This should be reason enough for agents and brokers to get in the game and implement a social networking strategy.
Further, support for the role social networking plays in facilitating trusted relationships and the importance of those relationships in consumer behavior can be found in the Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey
Social networks offer more substance and value than the familiar “what are you doing” status updates. Building and maintaining relationships is core to sales, promoting organic messages and monitoring customer trends are part of an agencies overall marketing effort and social networks serve a variety of public relations functions.
Here are some practical agent inspired examples.
- Provide the forum for discussion of social and family issues.
Agents should use their blogs, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to start and facilitate discussion to enable customers to engage in dialogues around important and relevant social and family issues. Founders Group Insurance uses their Blog and Twitter to engage their followers in both cultural and insurance related topics. http://foundersgrp.wordpress.com/\
- Help customers through with disaster preparedness and disaster recovery.
Agents can use social networks to respond and help customers involved in catastrophes like floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes with a wealth of helpful information. Nibby Priest, an agent in Henderson, KY used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers during an ice storm. Claims were actually submitted over Facebook.
- Educate customers on insurance and allow them to share feedback.
Agent Dennis Volz uses his San Diego Insurance Blog to help customers and prospects understand the world of insurance. http://dennis-insurance.blogspot.com/\
- Develop communities for targeting customer segments.
Irwin Siegel Agency is a provider of insurance and risk management solutions to the social services field and uses social networking to help generate interest with target customer segments. http://www.siegelagency.com/default.htm
- Enhance you brand and marketing message. Social networking provides a wonderful opportunity to reach new audiences. Rick Dinger of Creseda Valley Insurance has used YouTube and Facebook to attract a new audience. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU6JrRrsyk0. http://cvins.com/
- Create a virtual presence Atlanta Insurance Live has used the social web to create a virtual agency and has made very effective use of video to help educate his audience on insurance related topics. http://www.atlantainsurancelive.com/
Your agency has phones on your desk and email on your computer to allow people to communicate with you. Social networking is simply a new tool for the communication you and your staff have always done. These agencies are also finding that when they link their websites and their social networking sites, it greatly improves their positioning on search engines.
Getting Started – Creating a Plan
There are an infinite number of online networks available. Listed below are a few that can assist you in getting started in your social networking journey.
It’s not enough for a website to be a static brochure anymore. Your customers want to do things, find things, share things, and participate in things. Invest in making your website a resource and destination for people, and a conduit to
information and interaction with you.
A blog is a website with regular entries of commentary, news, opinion or other material such as links, photographs or video. Unlike traditional and typically “static” websites, a blog enriched or “blog forward” site can easily be kept current and relevant. A blog can add a level of credibility and a sense of accessibility to an agency brand.
Blogs should be a mix of information. They can be used to explain products and services, promote an agency sponsored team or event, as well as offer opinion or topics of general interest. Blogs posted with valuable and relevant content are an essential aspect of a successful social networking strategy.
Facebook can be a great way to connect with your customers. Facebook’s popularity means that many of your prospects and customers already use Facebook to keep in touch not only with family and friends but also companies. With over 400 million active users, having a presence on Facebook is a core component to any social web strategy. Perhaps knowing that the largest demographic on Facebook is 35-50 year olds, and one of the fastest growing groups is women over 55, will help provide a level of comfort.
Creating a business “fan” page is free, easy, and a positive way to communicate with “fans”.
LinkedIn is a social network for business professionals. Members create detailed personal profiles much like a resume. LinkedIn also offers online groups for individuals who share common interests and goals. Participation in these groups through discussion forums can serve as a means to deliver news about your products and services. http://www.linkedin.com
Twitter asks the question, "What are you doing.” Your followers will be able to view your messages or tweets on their screen instantly in real-time. Agencies can tweet company announcements, ask for feedback, answer customer questions or share relevant website page links.
Yes, even video should be considered when determining your social web strategy. Video is becoming a very effective way to deliver your message. http://www.youtube.com/
Managing your Social Web Presence
Like any business initiative, good management is key to long-term success. Social networking is no different. When you purchased your first agency automation system, success depended on re-thinking how your business would be run and putting a team in place that possessed the skills necessary to leverage the new technology.
As underscored above, social networking is more than just a marketing tool. Sales, customer service, support, claims, and risk management can all benefit from a comprehensive social networking strategy. To that end, it is prudent to engage people from all agency disciplines (including management, customer service, legal, IT) in the process of planning, creating strategy, implementing, and participating in your company’s social networking initiative.
The value you gain from social networking will not only affect the way you communicate with your customers, but it can also change the way you advertise, provide service, manage relationships and perhaps even how you sell products.
Social networking is quickly evolving and the issues which seem most pressing today will most likely be replaced by new ones in the future. It is important to remember that it is the sociology not the technology that is key. Therefore, while the technology will change, it is the societal transformations that represent the lasting trends and the challenges for our profession.
There are a myriad of conversations taking place on the web and our industry – and perhaps even your agency – is more than likely being discussed. Social networking provides agencies and brokers with an opportunity to be an active and trusted participant in that dialogue. Being a company that people trust and want to interact with is undeniably good for business.
There are no hard and fast rules for organizations wishing to use social networking. And yet, openness and transparency are key elements – with the end goal of building and strengthening trusted relationships. Social networking isn’t about you – it’s about your on-line “community” of friends, fans and followers and connecting with them so that when they have a need for insurance, they remember they have an agent friend on the social web who specializes in that.
Editor’s Note: ACT’s social web work group has created several resources to assist agencies with social networking, including a guide to creating a social web policy, which can be found at www.iiaba.net/act at the “Websites & Social Media” quick link. You will also find the schedule of upcoming ACT social networking webinars and recordings of past sessions there.
Rick Morgan is a consultant with four decades of experience in innovative technology, marketing, and publishing in the independent agency system. He chairs ACT’s Social Web Work Group. (firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.rickmorganconsulting.com/blog) Rick produced this article for ACT (www.iiaba.net/act ). It reflects his views and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.